Some visual development art of a man playing piano for Pixar's Soul.

Jazz Music and the Afterlife: Here's How Pixar's Soul Came to Be

Usually, movies about where babies come from aren’t appropriate for kids. However, Pixar’s Soul aims to tackle that subject in an unexpected and surprisingly family-friendly way. It’s about the death of a Black jazz musician. Stay with us here.

Soul, which will now debut on Disney+ December 25, follows Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a 45-year-old music teacher in New York who dreamed of being a great jazz musician but never made it. After nailing the biggest audition of his life, Joe falls down a manhole and dies, arriving in the Great Beyond. Instead of accepting what happened, he runs away from the light and into a place called the Great Before. This is where souls are created, live, and eventually attach to a person. There, he’s paired with a soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who never wants to leave that place. Together, Joe and 22 will discover the meaning of life and the afterlife.

At the beginning, [the pitch] was really just ‘Where do babies come from?’” Soul director Pete Docter said during a recent online press event. “And I don’t mean the obvious ‘A man and woman get together.’ It’s like, ‘Why is it that my kids—I have two kids—each one is so different?’ Same genetic stock, same environment, and yet each one reacts totally different. How is that possible?”

“So we just explored that idea of where did our personalities come from?” Docter continued. “How is it that we’re seemingly born into this world with a sense of who we are even before we have a chance to interact with anything? I think most parents have kind of had that experience of watching their kids start with something already instead of being a blank slate. And that’s kind of a miracle and kind of a brain scramble. So that was the pitch.”

Soul Joe, 22, and a bunch of new characters from the Great Before.
Soul Joe, 22, and a bunch of new characters from the Great Before.
Image: Disney/Pixar

The answer, of course, was a person’s soul. But how do we get one? What exactly is a soul? These are impossibly big questions people have asked for generations, which only meant Docter and his team knew they had to answer them. They just didn’t know how.

They set off to research and explore all different kinds of inspirational things, hoping something might give them a spark. It was then the team stumbled upon a master class by jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In the clip, Hancock explains a night he was playing music with Miles Davis and messed up the notes. He felt terrible. But Davis didn’t flinch. He took Hancock’s mistake, adapted to it, and made it work for their performance.

“Not only a great story, but really a perfect metaphor for what we were talking about in the film,” Docter said. “Don’t judge. Take what you’re given. Turn it into something of value. We realized that jazz was really the perfect representation of what we were trying to say in the film.” So that was how Pixar decided jazz would be the key to Soul.

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An early rendering of Joe.
Image: Disney/Pixar

Once that decision was made, Docter and the team realized a few things; If Joe’s main love was going to be jazz, the main character should be Black, and if so, they shouldn’t be the ones writing him. Around that time Docter had read the play, now soon to be film, One Night in Miami, written by Kemp Powers. Powers was then hired to at first write, and eventually co-direct, Soul.

“I very quickly realized that in many ways Joe really was just like me, so then I could use my own experiences to inform writing this character,” Powers said. “Just how much was he like me? Well, how old is Joe? He’s 45 years old. Coincidentally, I’m also in my mid 40s. Joe lives in New York, which is my hometown...Joe is a musician, and coincidentally, I used to be a music critic, I’m a musician myself, and my son is even named after the jazz great, Charles Mingus.”

Once the basic pieces are in place, the process of making Pixar movie is unlike almost every other movie. It’s not like Powers writes a script, animators animate, Docter directs, and they call it a day. Worlds have to be designed and characters created and everyone has their say. For example, what does a soul look like? Where do they live? How do they attach to people? Those decisions, and about a million more, are made by a massive collective of people who are either designing, storyboarding, writing, or any number of things that can impact the shape of the film. Everyone presents ideas, the best ones are chosen, and then the film moves along.

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A whole bunch of different Souls.
Image: Disney/Pixar

In Soul though, not only did Pixar have to create a story, it had to create a whole new visual language. The filmmakers had to figure out not just the look of a soul, but all the rules around that. Are there different souls? What makes them different? And how do you make sure someone watching can follow the main characters as it relates to all of that? It, very basically, came down to three things.

First are the new souls. Souls that have not yet been matched to a living being. Here’s animation supervisor Jude Brownbill: “They’re very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet. Because they’ve never lived on Earth, they have no concept of gravity, so they tend to float about or even fly.”

Next are the mentor souls. Souls who have already lived and help the new souls figure out their personalities. “They are an abstraction of how they saw themselves on Earth,” Brownbill said. “Each with unique, distinguishing features and accessories. Because they have experienced gravity on Earth, they walk as if it exists, even though they don’t really need to.”

The main characters, Joe and 22, then blend elements of both in ways that make them stand out: “How soul Joe seems himself on Earth, what’s important to him, are his hat and his glasses,” Brownbill said. “And they also help us to pick him out of the crowd, giving a visual connection to his human form. Twenty-two’s never been to Earth, but she knows a lot about it and has already begun to evolve, as you can see by her teeth, her tuft of hair, and her ability to produce legs if she wants them.”

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The barbershop is a big part of Soul.
Image: Disney/Pixar

As much care went into the look of the Souls and Great Before though, an equal amount went into making sure Joe, Pixar’s first Black lead character, was a good representation of the Black experience. For Powers, that started with one simple thing.

“I was a huge fan of Pete’s work before I ever met him,” Powers said. “And one of my favorite Pete Docter films was Monsters Inc. And one of the things that stood out was how they animated fur at the time. And I remember saying like, “Oh my God, Pete. I want to see Black hair rendered the Pixar way.” And so, there are scenes in Soul where Joe visits his Queens barbershop, which is filled with both Queens and Pixar, Easter eggs. “Just being able to show Black hair being trimmed, shaped, cut different shapes, different colors, in a Pixar film was really a joy,” Powers said.

Pixar also hired a large group of “expert cultural consultants” who were called on “make our story look and sound as authentic as possible,” according to Powers. “People like Dr. Johnnetta Cole, people like Bradford Young, the famous cinematographer, who contributed a great deal with our lighting team to the look of the film, and even Daveed Diggs and Questlove, two of the performers in the film who were also great cultural consultants as far as music.”

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Jon Batiste did the jazz music for Soul.
Image: Disney/Pixar

Ah yes, the music. The most important cultural signifier, the one that ties the whole film together, is the jazz. All the songs in Soul were written by Jon Batiste, best known for being the bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, who also served as a cultural consultant. “This film has a lot of light in it,” Batiste said. “It’s a lot of light and life force energy, I like to call it, and that was really the beginning of me figuring out my way into the music, the jazz music, in the film. Finding the spiritual tone.”

“I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal, accessible form with melodies and harmonies that-that had that same spirit,” Batiste continued. “Every song has those kind of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic textures, and it brings you to a place spiritually.”

Those songs are then juxtaposed with a score by Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who didn’t meet Batiste until late in the process.

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Reznor, Powers, Ross, Docter, Murray, Batiste.
Image: Disney/Pixar

“At first, we didn’t even hear each other’s music,” Batiste explained. “Then, as the process started to go along, I got a chance to hear some of the music they were making, they heard some of the music that I was making, and we came together in this one moment. It really changed the rest of the music that I was composing for the film because I got a chance to see into their process, and that also leaked into the kind of spiritual tone that I’m talking about, this ethos that we created.”

Ultimately, Batiste feels the film’s music and message are just about perfect for the trying times we’re currently in.

“People need light in this time, and I’m all about bringin’ the light,” he said. “And that’s one of the great pleasures of workin’ with Pixar. They’ve created these films that delve into all of the cultures of the world and create it in a way where it’s accessible to all people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or your experience. The stories transcend all of that. So, I just wanted to do my part.”

Speaking of those times, Soul was scheduled to come out in June of this year but, of course, didn’t due to the covid-19 pandemic. It was then scheduled for November 20 right up until yesterday, when it was pushed direct to Disney+ on December 25. In the below video, exclusive to io9, Doctor, producer Dana Murray and Powers talk about how Soul was basically done before the pandemic but has themes that will resonate even more in light of it.

Once it does come out, though, Docter, who also directed Monsters Inc, Inside Out, and Up, hopes Soul gives fans a respite from the new normal.

“I’ve always been attracted to fantastic worlds ‘cause I guess I like to escape this one,” the director said. “And these two films, Inside Out and Soul, I think are an escape but they’re also intimately connected in ways that hopefully everyone will find familiar and kind of speak to themselves.”

“To clarify, Soul is not a sequel,” Powers interjects. “Pete did not just say that Soul is a sequel to Inside Out.”

It is, however, a pretty original way to make a movie about making babies. Soul will debut on Disney+ December 25.


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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

wellgruntled
wellgruntled

Rarely do I ever feel like I need a movie but this is one at a time where I do. Really appreciate the drop on D+ over the winter break.